Journey to the West is one of the oldest novels in recorded history. It is the most influential story in all of Eastern Asia and to this day, it has seen countless adaptations in virtually all forms of media. Given the story’s themes of high adventure, it naturally lent itself to being adapted into video games- at least 30 and counting since 1984!
There are many chapters in Journey to the West, but most focus on the arc and development of Sun Wukong, the first disciple of Tang Sanzang. Sun Wukong is a fun character. He is goofy and has childlike wonderment in his disposition. He is flexible enough that you can interpret this in any way. The most beloved example of this story is in Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyessy to the West, where he was a brash and boastful brute.
The Crown of Wu is one of the many interpretations to tell the monkey king’s story. While every story should be told with a unique voice, this iteration of Sun Wukong is a deeply flawed execution. Where does everything go wrong? Find out in The Crown of Wu review!
The Crown of Wu
Developer: Red Mountain Consulting SL
Publisher: Meridiem Games, Gammera Nest, Ripples Asia Venture
Platforms: Windows PC, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (reviewed)
Release Date: March 24, 2023
Price: $19.99 USD
A large team did not make the Crown of Wu of developers and it shows. It was made by about three people and while there are shades of what their vision could have been, the lack of manpower is evident in every aspect of the game.
Whether it is the core gameplay, controls, sound design, animation, or character designs; The Crown of Wu misses its mark on all fronts. The fact of the matter is attempting to make an epic 3D action game that is inspired by Dark Souls with some Legend of Zelda-style dungeons is a tall order even for a fully equipped AAA game developer.
The Crown of Wu attempts to do the monkey king’s story in the broadest strokes which is fine; the problems arise when playing it and you reel back in horror when controlling Sun Wukong.
The Crown of Wu wastes no time in giving control to the player and setting them loose. Sun Wukong’s control layout is like any other 3D action game, except for the fact of how awkward he feels. 3D platforming is a major pillar of The Crown of Wu and the jumping physics feels very wrong.
Wukong feels weightless and slippery; he can also leap far but doesn’t get much vertical air. He can double-jump, but when trying to control his jumps, his momentum feels artificial and locked into a direction he is moving that makes him feel like he is underwater.
The platforming is also woefully unimaginative and never evolves beyond jumping on flat floating panels that sometimes disappear. There is no wall-jumping, no acrobatics, no wall-running; the lack of creativity makes Sun Wukong feel more like a stiff old man and less like the monkey king he is supposed to be.
Wukong’s design also doesn’t look right. Notice the colorful and stylish render used at the top of this review. That is not what he looks like in the game. He resembles a regular-looking man with massive sideburns and wooden hair. Andy Serkis in Enslaved looked more like a monkey than this protagonist, and that was just Andy Serkis.
The Crown of Wu needed to lean more into making Wukong into an actual monkey instead of a guy with monkey-like characteristics. During combat, his attacks are too slow and have absurd wind-ups for his quick attacks. He has magical elemental abilities that are so impractical that enemies will more likely stun-lock him to death before he can finish his animations.
Enemies barely react to any of the bow staff’s strikes and the lack of audible feedback makes Wukong’s weapon feel like a wiffle bat.
The best and most effective strategy is to constantly circle-strafe around a locked-on enemy and sucker punch them with a heavy attack when the AI misses. It is tedious but it is the only means of having a fair fight because the dash used for dodging is delayed and unresponsive, which makes it unreliable.
Healing requires an awkward set of button inputs that require a trigger being held with a face button being held for a second to kick in. Magic is ineffectual for anything but healing and the only way to replenish MP is to smash crystals that won’t fill the whole gauge. The crystals do regrow which wastes time, so it asks the question, “Why not have crystals completely refill MP in one go?”.
The Crown of Wu is rife with perplexing design choices that would have been caught by testers, but the team likely did not have this luxury. It is fascinating to play a game in this manner because there is never a moment where you feel immersed and are constantly asking “Why?”, with every step forward. This almost gives insight into the design process that the developers were going through when designing the game.
Things that make no sense like the extremely situational sliding move or the quick-time events that are always the same input every time show that the developers were trying all kinds of gimmicks to see what worked. None of it ever comes together to make sense and the longer you play it, the more obvious the artifice of the world becomes apparent.
The only saving grace of The Crown of Wu is that the dungeons and level designs have some creative layouts. Conceptually and structurally, there is logic to how these locations operate and have themes that work. The puzzles within them require a bit of thought and what players need to do is thoughtfully telegraphed. Gamers don’t need to be smart to negotiate these challenges, but they will feel smart.
The sound design in The Crown of Wu is sparse and borders on nonexistent at its worst. This is another arena where the game falls short, but most of it can be forgiven.
The most heinous sound design comes from the telepathic guide that speaks in made-up gibberish. The idea isn’t terrible, but in practice, the result is what you’d get if you met Slim Pickens in the Black Lodge. This bizarre and distracting choice is headache-inducing and is at odds with the Chinese cyberpunk fantasy setting that the game is going for.
The Crown of Wu has a lot of problems and most of it is due to the complexity of the concept that a small team was unable to realize. Some aspects would have been more effective if they were simplified, like the combat and magic systems. The platforming is hopelessly underdeveloped and the character design needs a drastic overhaul to be more appealing.
The Crown of Wu was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a copy provided by Meridiem Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. The Crown of Wu is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S.